The water is a murky green, infected with moss and dirt. Sam looks at his reflection in the man-made pond, his short hair and round face next to June’s. Her long hair falls over her sharp face, both their faces side by side, their arms touching. Water has filled up the once marble foyer, Roman pillars rising above four corners like a bath house.
“What’s so special about this pond?” he asks.
“Shhh!” June says. “Wait till you see the koi fish.”
The sun is low and the weather is cool, around them only hills and crickets, their bikes resting against the pillars.
“Tell it what you want to see, and it will show you.” June rests her chin on her hands, closes her eyes.
“Why? What have you seen here?”
“Lots of things,” she says. “An old bicycle, a gold ring, a keris like Hang Tuah’s. Even a gun.”
“Shhh!” June jumps up when the water ripples. “There it is!”
Sam straightens up, catches a glimpse of the fish. It rises slowly to the surface, its red and orange scales fiery like a snake’s, shining against the dirty green.
“Quick, tell it what you want to see, anything at all.”
“I want to see my mother,” Sam says.
Pearl Hill, 2018
He calls on her home on No.17 on Pearl Hill Drive. When he’s drunk he should not be behind the wheel but the winding and the snaking gives him the thrills. The sea is blackness in the distance, the island so stifling small, like a desert island with only trapped memories for a companion.
“June, I really need to talk to you.” Samuel Ong is drunk-texting again. These days, it’s rare that he’s sober.
“What’s happening, Sam?”
If you don’t talk to me, I’ll be ruined.
“I’m outside,” he types. Sam kills the engine and the silence is loud, behind him only hills and crickets. The night is chilly, the hillside breeze blowing cold winds. He lights a cigarette to calm the nerves, to do something, anything.
The gate rolls back and June Tan appears in a sundress, gaunt with long hair over her shoulders. Her husband’s mansion is a far stretch from the terraced houses they grew up in Sungai Ara.
“Hey, Sam. What’s with the new hair?”
“You don’t like it? All the bad boys wear it blonde.”
She laughs but is distracted by a noise within. “Nathan, come say hi to Uncle Samuel.”
A boy emerges barefooted, barely five. “Hi, Uncle Samuel.”
Sam puts out his cigarette, pinches the boy’s cheeks. “Nathan, what a handsome young man.”
Nathan screams at the sight of a dragon and sword tattoo along his arm and hides behind his mother.
“Now go back inside, tell Daddy I’ll be home by midnight.”
She grabs a brown cardigan and looks over at the white BMW outside her gate.
“It’s not my mother’s,” he says. “But it’s the same model.”
“Oh. And who’s that in the car behind you?”
“My new bodyguard.”
“Your bodyguard? Why do you need a bodyguard?”
“Comes with the job. The perks of being a Datuk.”
“I didn’t know you were—”
He waves a hand. “Anyone can be a Datuk these days. If you have the money. Anyway, he’s not going to follow us around everywhere. Not if I tell him not to.”
Johor Bahru, 1999
Woman shot six times by gunmen while driving in Johor Bahru
JOHOR BAHRU: A woman from Penang was shot dead as she was driving her BMW along Taman Permai. The victim, Samantha Lee Geok Luan, 49, died from gunshot wounds in the chest in the close-range shooting at 5:40 p.m. Several bullet holes were found in the window of her car. Johor Bahru CID chief, Senior Zainal Azman, said two men on a motorcycle approached the car and the pillion rider opened fire. “About 10 shots were fired and she was hit six times in the chest,” he said. Madam Lee is survived by a husband and a son who are both residing in Penang. Her body has been sent to Sultanah Aminah Hospital for a post-mortem.
Teluk Bahang, 2018
“I hope you don’t mind if I roll down the window, I really need some fresh air.”
“Not at all,” June says, her eyes darting to the side mirror.
“Is he making you nervous, my bodyguard?”
“I’ll tell him to back off.”
Sam speaks into his phone, and the headlights behind them disappear into the night.
“Who is this bodyguard?”
“Oh, Jamal you mean? I met him in Kota Bharu.”
“So where have you been, Sam? I haven’t seen you in what, three years?”
“Here and there. In Johor Bahru mostly.”
“Oh. You said you wanted to talk. What about?”
“It’s complicated. I’d rather talk when we get there.”
“The mansion in Relau.”
“Oh, Sam, not again.”
“Why not? You were the one who brought me there.”
Sam reaches into the glove compartment, fumbling for a cigarette. June watches his bony fingers fall on a Glock 19.
“Why are you carrying a gun with you? Are you crazy?”
“It makes me feel at peace, if that’s what you want to know. Will you please help me—”
She tuts, removes a stick of Marlboro’s and lights it for him. She rummages through pillboxes, medicine bottles, men’s cologne, air freshener sprays. In the semi-darkness Sam is washed in blue, rays emanating from the lights on his dashboard. He is gaunt, his skin blemished, the baby fat gone from their younger days. The mop of blonde hair is the only thing that makes him look alive.
June removes a stick and lights one for herself. She winds down their windows, the car fragrance too strong for her. The Teluk Bahang sea breeze threatens to snuff out their orange ambers as they puff into the night.
“I had a dream last night,” he says. “About the two of us.”
June tuts, her arm against the window, head resting on her hand.
“I dreamt that we were walking to the edge of the sea, holding hands, but there’s blood everywhere on our clothes.”
“Oh, Sam, are you hallucinating again?”
“Do you know what that means, June?”
“The dream is a warning, isn’t it? But it’s not a dream if it’s happening in reality. Where is the blood coming from? From the past, you say. But it’s on both our fabrics. Do you know what that means, June?”
“Sam, are you still on medication?”
“Are you still seeing your doctor?”
“Why are you really back in town, Sam? Are you doing another job?” she asks, not really wanting the answer.
“No. I’m here to see you, of course.”
“No.” She shakes her head. “Tell me the truth.”
“I want to talk about that day at the pond.” June throws her hands up. “Why?”
“Because it’s important to me. Please, just oblige me.”
“Ok, what do you want to know?”
“Tell me what happened, all those years ago. Tell me the truth.”
The koi is like a mermaid imprinted into his mind, the flash of fiery orange and red against the dirty green.
“I want to see my mother,” Sam says. “Louder,” June says.
“I want to see my mother.”
The fish swims quickly away, but in its place, a blob of black hair rises to the surface, like seaweed attached to a head. The head slowly turns and bobs, its skin pale and punctured, its eye socket empty. Sam freezes, his nails dig into the flesh of June’s arm. Could this be his mother? But the woman’s face is unrecognisable. The koi surfaces next to the head and spits out a shrivelled eyeball. It lands on Sam’s foot and he screams. He kicks June’s elbow by accident, hears her screams. Then he grabs her up by the arm.
Together they head to their bicycles, pedal out of the compound and down the slope, leaving the abandoned mansion with no roof behind. They pedal on a little sand and pebble path, pass the incomplete housing projects, pass the barking stray dogs and the quiet wooden homes back to their estate in Sungai Ara. The tears and sweat run down Sam’s face, and he can taste them in his mouth. He rides fast, almost breaking the pedal, not daring to look back. Behind him, he can hear June catching up, hear her feet fumbling on the pedal. He mustn’t let her see him this way, ever.
The moon is out and the air is warm at the foothills of Relau. Surrounded by Bukit Jambul to the back and the sprawling terrace houses of Sungai Ara at its side, Relau’s abandoned mansion looks the same as it did in his memory. Sam drives the car as far as they can go then kills the engine and the light.
It is June who gets out first. He follows after her to the mansion, a skeletal frame with only the silhouette of four pillars jutting up into the sky like joss sticks. June walks steadily to the pond, as though she is twelve again, the age that would set the course of his life. He follows her like he did all those years ago—he can make out her shape in the dark, even though they’re not children anymore. The long weeds brush his jeans, and he puts his palm out, face down and above them, feeling the tickle.
If you don’t talk to me, I’ll be ruined.
The pond is deeper than he remembers, but the water has no colour in the dark. June stops at the edge, looking at the stagnant water.
“I was a child, I was stupid,” she says. “I loved playing games, thought I could summon spirits. I wanted to play genie, or jinn, or whatever. Fairy godmother. I never saw anything, Sam. I screamed because you screamed, and I ran because you ran. When I asked, you refused to tell me what you saw. Do you believe me now?”
She turns to face him, her eyes deep and dark like murky water, like slush and mud.
And now he wishes he hadn’t drunk so much because he does want to see her properly, remember this night properly.
“No,” he says. “I am here because of you. I am the way I am because of you. It’s all your fault. You brought me to this pond. You said it showed you a golden ring, a keris, a rifle.”
“No, Sam. It’s all a lie. I made it all up. It was stuff we had been reading at school. Hang Tuah nonsense, Puteri Ledang fairy tales.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“I’m sorry that you think any of this is my fault. I may have told stupid stories, but it’s not my fault that you didn’t finish school, that you chose to go down this path, to avenge a mother you barely knew.”
At this he slaps her, then pulls her back before she can fall over. June struggles but he presses her against his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, stroking her hair. “I would never hurt you, you know that. June, I’ve done something horrible this time. I really have.”
“What have you done, Sam?”
“If I hadn’t followed you to this pond, then none of this would’ve happened. The blood is on both our fabrics, like in my dream.”
“No, Sam. It wouldn’t have made a difference. It would’ve happened anyway. These things are out of our control. Your mother died when you were very young, and you’ve—”
“She was assassinated. Did anybody ever tell you that? We could have saved her. It was a premonition, a warning.”
“Oh, Sam.” And now she holds his face in her hands. “Who would’ve believed us even if we told the truth? Please, Sam, you have to let go and move on. We were kids, and now we’re not anymore.”
“You knew I liked you, or I would never have followed you out here.”
“Sam, I don’t believe you’re that delusional, to attribute an apparition to your entire life.”
“I’ll build us a home along Moonlight Bay. I have all the money in the world.”
Sam reaches in to kiss her, but June pushes him away. “Please, Sam. I have a family. Think about my boy. It’s not like we’re in high school anymore.”
“You never thought about me, did you? You never thought about what your stories did to me. They put me in a mental hospital in Kota Bharu, June. Do you know what that’s like?”
June sobs, her hands covering her mouth. The Glock 19 is now on her forehead. “Sam, don’t do this. Think about my boy. He will grow up without a mother—just like you.”
A dog barks and she screams. Gun fire erupts from the darkness like pops of fireworks, and his arm stings. He loses grip of his Glock 19, but doesn’t catch June until she is in the water. Sam goes after her in the pond, the water strewn with reeds and twigs. He dives underwater, bringing her with him. Sam is used to getting rid of bodies, now what would he do? This was June. Whoever is in the shadows is waiting for him. When he is sure they are gone, he rises to the surface, like the koi fish and the bobbing head. In the moonlight, he sees that her skin is pale and fractured, her eye socket is empty.
Wan Phing Lim was born to Malaysian parents in 1986 in Butterworth, Penang. Her short stories have appeared in Catapult (USA), Ricepaper Magazine (Canada) and anthologies by Monsoon Books (UK), Ethos Books (Singapore) and Fixi Novo (Malaysia). Her story ‘Snake Bridge Temple’ was selected for Kitaab’s Best Asian Short Stories 2017 and Buku Fixi’s New Malaysian Writing 2017.